Health impacts of air pollution

Page Last modified 28 Jan 2020
2 min read
Air pollution is a major cause of premature death and disease, and is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe. Heart disease and stroke are the most common reasons for premature death attributable to air pollution, followed by lung diseases and lung cancer.

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The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified air pollution in general — as well as particulate matter (PM), a separate component of air pollution mixtures — as carcinogenic.

The effects of air pollution on health depend not only on exposure but also on the vulnerability of people. Vulnerability to the impacts of air pollution can increase as a result of age, pre-existing health conditions or particular behaviours. A large body of evidence suggests that people of lower socio-economic status tend to live in environments with worse air quality. Find more information here.

Population exposure to air pollution

Calculating population exposure to air population is crucial to assessing the impacts of air pollution. In order to reduce these impacts, apart from strategies to abate air pollution, measures implemented can also be aimed at reducing exposure.

The EEA uses different methods to calculate the concentrations to which the European population is exposed.

1. The Indicator, Exceedance of air quality standards in urban areas shows the share of the EU-28 urban population exposed to levels of pollutants that exceed selected EU legal standards and World Health Organisation guidelines

 

SourceExceedance of air quality standards in urban areas, CSI004

2. The Ambient Air Quality Directive defines the PM2.5 Average Exposure Indicator. This indicator reflects population exposure to PM2.5 and shows the average concentration at urban background locations throughout a country. It is calculated as a 3-year average. In 2015, the level had to be below 20 µg/m3 in any country. In 2017, concentrations were still above that level in three countries.


More information available in the EEA’s report Air quality in Europe 2019 .

3. Finally, via its European Topic Centre on Air Pollution, transport, noise and industrial pollution, the EEA produces fusion maps. These maps are obtained from measurements at monitoring stations and complemented with models and additional geographical, meteorological and population density data. The concentration maps are combined with population density maps to obtain figures for population exposure. According to the latest results, total European population exposure for PM and nitrogen dioxide has been declining since the early 2000s, while for ozone, the decline is less marked.

Changes in total European population exposure to PM10, PM2.5, (annual mean), O3 (SOMO35) and NO2 (annual mean) from 2005 to 2016

Source: Air quality in Europe 2019

Health impacts of air pollution

The decrease in air pollution concentrations and, therefore, in exposure to it, has reduced health impacts on people. Nevertheless, citizens are still affected by air pollution, especially in urban areas where higher population densities and high air pollution coincide. The effects of air pollution on health range from sub-clinical ones (inflammation) to more serious ones such as the aggravation of existing conditions and ultimately death.

Health impacts can be quantified using different metrics (also called health points), reflecting either morbidity (e.g., an increase in the number of hospitalisations, working days lost, etc.) or mortality (e.g., number of premature deaths).

The EEA has been calculating mortality attributable to exposure to air pollution since 2014. The methodology is explained in a briefing, and the complete results can be found in the Air Quality in Europe report series. The table below shows the results for premature deaths attributed in 2016.

Premature deaths attributable to PM2.5, NO2 and O3 exposure in 41 European countries and the EU‑28, 2016

Source: Air quality in Europe 2019

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